Heading into Thanksgiving weekend, I hosted a discussion at Rocky Mountain College on protests. Even though the Coffee and Conversation discussion came after classes were out for the week, and even though a cold front was supposed to be on the way, 20 or so students showed up. Maybe it was the free coffee that brought them out, or the prospect of a long weekend too far from home to spend the holiday traveling.
I gave a general overview of current protests: pro football quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem, the Dakota Access Pipeline gathering of the tribes, and the anti-Trump protests that followed the Nov. 8 election, including the polite appeal by the cast of “Hamilton.” I threw in some information about the effort to have Electoral College delegates refuse to vote for Trump and also about flag burning.
The last was a bit of a stretch. Nobody has seriously proposed a flag-burning ban since 2006, but flags had been burned at anti-Trump rallies, and the constitutional right to burn flags was upheld by the Supreme Court by a single vote. A single vote in the Senate also prevented sending a flag desecration amendment to the states. Since most of the pro-amendment votes came from Republicans, and since Republicans now run Congress, I thought the possibility was worth mentioning.
I made the short argument in favor of flag burners: to desecrate is to violate the sacred. A government that has the right to tell citizens what they must hold sacred also has the right to tell citizens what they may not hold sacred. No government should have that right.
I also made a few basic points about protests: that we in the media are suckers for protests, whether by professional protesters like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals going topless to save animals or just some guy on the courthouse lawn holding up a sign protesting his child support payment.
I pointed out that most successful protests have deep roots. Kaepernick’s protest not only acknowledged the Black Lives Matter movement but also recalled the Black Power salutes by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the civil rights protests of the 1950s and ’60s and the centuries of oppression that preceded them.
The pipeline protest dredges up old issues of tribal rights and tribal sovereignty that go back to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which was itself an attempt to resolve many years of conflict between indigenous people and illegal white immigrants.
The anti-Trump protests summon up not only 150 years of conflict between Democrats and Republicans but a debate over how to elect presidents that goes back to the country’s founding and a debate over demagoguery that goes back to the ancient Greeks.
I made three further points. First, protests sometimes pay off. The civil rights movement shamed the country into passing laws to protect black citizens. Vietnam War protests may well have shortened the war. Tea Party protests transmogrified into political campaigns that altered the composition of Congress. Even in Nazi Germany, non-Jewish women in the Rosenstraße protest in 1943 saved their Jewish husbands from the Holocaust.
Second, I said, protests are a healthy thing in a democracy. Not everything can be resolved at the ballot box, which measures inclinations but not passions.
Third, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for a perfect cause to start a protest. The shooting of Michael Brown may not have been the ideal way to set off the firestorm of protest that became Black Lives Matter, but it’s the fire that matters, not the match. Wait for the pristine cause, and you will wait your entire life.
It was an enjoyable evening, at least for me, and quite a few students chimed in with thoughts of their own. The next day, we were off to spend Thanksgiving Day in Arlee with my daughter, her husband and his family. The star attraction was my 6-week-old grandson, Arthur King, who already has learned at his tender age how to smite into slavish submission everybody in any room he enters.
Perhaps he also ignited a spark of optimism in us old fogies. Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by 16 percentage points in Missoula County, so there was some quiet despair over the election, but mostly hopeful noises and not a hint of protest. Perhaps our worst fears wouldn’t come true, we rationalized. Besides, we had at least one more fine Thanksgiving on the table in front of us.
My daughter’s friends were less accommodating. One said that if Trump went through with plans to create a Muslim registry, we would all have to go “full Spartacus.” It took me a couple of minutes to remember the scene in the Stanley Kubrick movie when the rebel slave, played by Kirk Douglas, and his followers were taken captive by Romans.
As the soldiers tried to identify Spartacus, the rebel commander, the captives all shouted, “I am Spartacus.”
Yes, of course, he’s right, I thought. If we are going to show our support for our Jewish friends by hanging menorahs in our windows, then we are all going to have to sign up as Muslims, too.
Then, right on schedule, Trump came out early Tuesday morning with a Tweet seeking to imprison flag burners or deprive them of citizenship. So, I thought, we are all going to have to burn flags, too.
Look, I don’t want to pretend I’m a Muslim. And I don’t want to burn any flags, or take part in any of the other protests we might be provoked into over the next four years.
But I also don’t want to lose the America I grew up in. You know, the one that was great.